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May 16, 2004 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)
Pastor Fritz Fritschel
Are you having as much trouble as I am in making sense out of the religious scene in our nation today? The religious rhetoric and activity is increasing, but it seems to go in different directions. There is a great activity and growth among the Evangelical Christians, but among the mainline churches, now properly called old-line churches, like ours, the numbers have been decreasing nationally. Issues of sexuality and rights continue to test denominational positions. The scene is like a heavily trafficked freeway, with traffic going past each other in two directions. Perhaps you have seen or heard reports out of Colorado Springs this week. Colorado Springs is recognized as a strong center of Evangelical Christianity. However, this past week a radio interview featured several young teenage girls from the community who belong to WICCA, commonly known as witches. They term may be unfair to them, for they are trying to ally themselves with a sympathy with and for nature. But it is this unorthodox position emerging in a heavily evangelical community that suggests a pattern of traffic passing by each other. The Roman Catholic bishop in the same city yesterday was quoted as saying that he would not serve communion to a political candidate who took a stand on certain key issues. And, he added, he would not serve communion to any parishioner who supported and voted for such a candidate. The religious scene is becoming more political, the political seen is becoming more filled with religious language. And the traffic continues to zoom past in opposite directions.... We need some guidance, some counseling.
And that is some of the promise of the text from John today, when Jesus speaks about the Spirit being sent from the Father, an Advocate [Counselor]. But it is even in the textual world that we find opinions passing each other on two sides of the road. The scholars' view is that the writer of John was involved in theological controversy within his or her community. The dissension may have involved followers of a tradition attributed to Thomas and those following John. Elaine Pagels, a historian of early church history, suggests a possible issue or contention. She makes use of the text of the Gospel of Thomas, as early collection of sayings of Jesus, discovered in their entirety as recently as 1945. These sayings of Jesus, many either identical or similar to sayings in the synoptic gospels, also show some likeness to John's Gospel. Yet with a significant difference. The sayings of Thomas suggest that every person, made in the image of God, has "light" within themselves, like a divine light. But in John, Jesus is described in such unique terms that he exclusively is the one to bear the light. Pagels goes on to suggest that the writer of John tried to discredit the Thomas tradition by picturing Thomas in a less than favorable light. We are familiar with the story of the "doubting Thomas" in that regard. It seems we need some help in sorting some of these traditions out.
Perhaps John's reference to the Advocate and Counselor can be of assistance. John also refers to this Advocate, in the previous chapter, as the Spirit of Truth. That's what we need the Spirit of Truth. But that just seems to beg the question againŠ. Whose truth? What kind of truth? Who makes the final judgment? Is it scientific truth we are seeking? Historical truth? Psychological truth? Personal experience? How are we to sort out all these conflicting claims, these religious energies?
How we understand the concept of truth is vital, even to our faith and understanding of God. Let me try to illustrate. If we understand God to be absolute, then we perceive truth in certain way. Truth is fixed, certain, inviolable, unchanging. Nothing that happens will really affect it. If we understand God to be absolutely relative, we perceive truth in a different way. Absolutely relative--that is, there is nothing to which God is not related. Everything is influence by the divine touch and everything influences God. It is not that the character of God changes. We know God as faithful, in that regard. But the experience of God is changed by what we do, by our joys, sorrows and struggles. Just as the moon sees us, and we see the moon*.
Let me return to the metaphor of traffic on the freeway flowing in two directions. I recall seeing an episode in Jacob Bronowki's series called The Ascent of Man. As a PBS series many years ago, Bronowski was reviewing the history of science. In one episode he was speaking about Heisenberg's "Principle of Uncertainty." In quantum physics, as I understand it, it is theoretically impossible to determine the location and velocity of an electronic particle at the same time. You either know the location or the velocity, but not both at the same time. So there is an element of uncertainty. But Bronowski did not use the term "uncertainty". He spoke of the principle of tolerance. There is a kind of fuzziness in trying to speak about the electronic particle. As Bronowski spoke, he was picking up a handful of dirt at the site of Dachau near Munich. And then he commented that while the world of science and physics was speaking about a principle of uncertainty or tolerance built into the very fabric of the atom, in politics there was a spirit of intolerance developing in the totalitarian policy of Nazism. Traffic going in two different directions.
In an analogous way, I think of developments of our time. One of the essential truisms of our day is that we are interdependent. Life is interdependent. We know and recognize this from economics, from ecology, from our social existence in the world. We need one another, depend on one another for food, energy, ideas, beauty, survival. We are social creatures. Yet, while the world around us speaks to our interdependency, we have policies that advocate radical individualism and privatization. We have traffic that is heading in two different directions. Which will it be--a life of social interdependency or a life of individualism? We need some help, some Counselor, perhaps a whole staff of counselors.
The writer of our Gospel suggests that this Advocate or Counselor, besides being known as the Spirit of Truth, guides and teaches us everything that the Christ has taught and stood for. We are not left without instruction nor without capability in discerning, assessing and making decisions based on love. Last Sunday Pastor Dave encouraged us to think of love as a decision, a practical decision.
One such practicality, following the example of Jesus, is a life of generosity both materially and spiritually. Material generosity includes the sharing of our resources, our knowledge, an encouragement of just distribution of goods. Spiritual generosity is exemplified in forgiveness--not allowing bitterness, anger, hostility and vengeance to be the dominant patterns of behavior. It may be naive of me to suggest that such generosity can inform and guide policies on a larger scale. I know that one may be mocked and ridiculed to suggest that there is an alternative to the politics of domination and power in the "real world."
But it is exactly the message of the cross, the power of suffering love, that unmasks the futility and pride of the powers that be. Those of us who are called to a committed life of Christ-like love need one another as well as needing the guidance of the Spirit of Truth. May our life together be formed and fashioned with that life-giving Spirit.
Copyright © 2004 Fritz Fritschel
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